'57 Chevy a 'phantom'

LYONS — Gene James loves classic cars, especially those that don't fit the everyday mold. His 1957 Chevy Bel Air "El Camino" illustrates the point perfectly.

What's that you say, Chevy didn't begin building El Caminos until 1959? Absolutely right, but if they had started the same year that Ford began building its light-duty car-based Ranchero, his Inferno Red Chevy is probably what the factory would have turned out.

And there's little doubt that it would have been a hot seller, as his car combines the clean, classic good looks of the '57 Chevy with the utility of a small hauler.

James' version is what is referred to as a "phantom," a car that was never produced by one of the major automakers, a sort of "what-if?" machine.

His phantom showed up on eBay as a project car, a four-door Chevrolet station wagon that someone had begun converting to a pickup.

"They said it was found in a barn north of Denver. It had a lot of cancer in it. Whoever started making it a pickup did a good job. But it was pretty rough and they just wanted a good price for it," James said. "Millie, my girlfriend, thought I was nuts," he said.

But he couldn't resist the potential he saw in the white-over-copper conversion and eventually hauled the car back to Kansas, where it was shipped to Jim Dykens in Norton, who would do a frame-off rebuild.

That was in April 2007. "The only downfall is that the doors are a little short, so the cab is short, too," James said, noting that a 2-door wagon would not have posed that problem. After the majority of the roof had been trimmed off, the original builder had used a conventional pickup truck cab's rear panel to close off the rear of the cab.

The bed of the truck still had the open spare tire well of the wagon and a piece of plywood had been fitted over the missing rear seat, James said. So Dykens used an S-10 pickup bed floor to fill those gaps. James himself later added a polished aluminum diamond-plate deck trimmed to fit the inner contours of the bed.

The rear doors had already been molded in and the bottom half of the station wagon tailgate modified to blend with the swoopy rear fenders. "It almost looks stock," James said.

The front and rear bumpers were cleaned up and replated, while various patch panels and reproduction trim pieces were used to used to make the phantom look real.

Inside, the stock dashboard was retained, complete with AM radio. A set of Ford King Ranch leather seats with center console, all upholstered in soft brown leather, was added. Because the seats filled the cab up, James chose a 15-inch scaled-down reproduction '57 Chevy steering wheel. "The only thing I wish I had done was add power steering," he said.

The El Camino had come equipped with a 327 V-8, so James had it bored out and rebuilt to basically stock specifications. It routes power to the stock station wagon rear end through a Powerglide automatic transmission controlled by a B&M floor shifter.

The truck is finished in Chrysler Inferno Red metallic pearl, inspired by a Dodge Ram pickup James saw in a parking lot. The finishing touches include a set of Cragar 5-spoke mag wheels and BF Goodrich white-letter tires.

James says he enjoys standing off to one side of his '57 "El Camino" and listening to people debate its origins. "Sometimes I'll hear an old farmer say, 'Yep, this must be the first year for the El Camino.' And I don't say anything," James said.

He has several other head-turners in his collection, including a customized 1971 Chevy Suburban painted silver and black with green pinstriping. Lowered, with oversized Eagle alloy rims, the Suburban's real eye-catching feature is the supercharged 350 Chevy crate motor that juts up through a beautifully sculptured hole in the hood.

The Suburban was built by Gary Hodges of Hodges Body Shop in Lyons. "I fell in love with it the minute I saw it," James said.

Ironically, he seldom displays either vehicle at formal car shows. But whether it's at a gas station or parked in the grass of an area car show, they both appeal to those looking for something a bit different and invariably start a lot of conversations.

And Gene James enjoys that.

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